Meet Enus

It may be quiet here at Beetles in the Bush for the next week or so while Ted is off in the far corners of Oklahoma looking for beetles to photograph and add to his collection. In the meantime, meet Enus (full name Enoclerus ichneumoneus), a checkered beetle who was beaten from a dead grapevine (Vitis sp.) in southeastern Missouri and who has promised Ted he will keep a close eye on things while Ted is away.

Enoclerus ichneumoneus | Stoddard Co., Missouri

Enoclerus ichneumoneus | Stoddard Co., Missouri

Beetles in Oklahoma had better watch out!

© Ted C. MacRae 2013

North America’s itsiest bitsiest longhorned beetle

Longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae) are generally regarded as medium to large-sized beetles, but that doesn’t mean the family is without its pip-squeeks! There are a number of species, primarily in the tribes Tillomorphini, Anaglyptini, and Clytini (all in the subfamily Cerambycinae) that are remarkably effective mimics of ants. Some of these, especially members of the genus Euderces, are quite small, but none are smaller than the absolutely diminutive Cyrtinus pygmaeus. Measuring only 2–3 millimeters in length, the adult beetles can be found on dead twigs and branches among equally small ants such as Lasius americanus.

Cyrtinus pygmaeus | Stoddard Co., Missouri

Cyrtinus pygmaeus | Stoddard Co., Missouri

The species is said to be widespread across eastern North America, having been recorded on a number of hardwood trees (Lingafelter 2007). I have no reason to doubt this, having reared a number of individuals from dead branches of river birch (Betula nigra), chinquapin oak (Quercus muhlenbergii), willow oak (Q. phellos) and black oak (Q. velutina) (MacRae & Rice 2007), but in the wild I have only encountered the species three times—each time as a single specimen that I noticed crawling on my arm after a bout of beating a variety of dead branches. The most recent occasion was two weekends ago during a visit to the Mississippi Lowlands of southeastern Missouri. I had done a bit of beating in a forest dominated by black oak, blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), and southern red oak (Q. falcata) and not found much when I felt a “tickle” on my right forearm. I looked down and was just about to flick the “ant” off my arm when something about the way it moved gave me pause. I stopped and looked closer, then recognizing what it was, instinctively called out “Oh cool, Cryrtinus pygmaeus!” My field partners for the day had never seen the species, so I let them look before I placed it in a vial. I was sure they would ogle at the incredibly tiny longhorned beetle, but their subdued “Hmm”s makes me think they were less impressed with the find than I was.

Cyrtinus pygmaeus

Like other ant-mimicking genera, the elytra of this species bear two prominent humps near their bases.

If the species is so common, why have I not seen them more commonly or on the beating sheet proper as soon as I beat them from their host plant? The answer, I believe, is that they are such effective mimics of the tiniest of ants that I simply overlook them! The series of specimens retrieved from my rearing cans could not be missed, as I combed through the contents every week during the beetle emergence period to make sure I found anything—longhorned beetle or otherwise—that emerged from the wood inside. In the field, however, my search image is queued for more “normal-sized” beetles and especially movement. Most other ant-mimicking longhorned beetles, even though they look very much like ants, still run like longhorned beetles—swiftly, almost frenetically, looking for the earliest opportunity to spread their elytra and take wing. Cyrtinus pygmaeus, on the other hand, is slow and clumsy, not a runner at all (slower even than the ants they mimic). If the three individuals I’ve encountered in the wild to date hadn’t happened to fall on my arm rather than the beating sheet and gotten stuck in my hair and perspiration I may never have noticed them.

Cyrtinus pygmaeus

Bands of white pubescence on the bases of the elytra give the illusion of a narrow-waisted ant.

I considered putting the beetle on a branch for photographs as soon as I found it, but since I had already pulled it off my arm I had already lost the chance to take true field photographs. Instead, I placed the beetle live in a vial and photographed it the next day at home. All of the photos were taken hand-held with an MP-E 65 mm macro lens at the upper end of its magnification capabilities. The green background is simply a colored file folder placed about four inches behind the beetle as I photographed it.

p.s. can you tell me what unusual feature this particular individual exhibits?

REFERENCES:

Lingafelter, S. W. 2007. Illustrated Key to the Longhorned Woodboring Beetles of the Eastern United States. Coleopterists Society Miscellaneous Publications, Special Publication No. 3, 206 pp.

MacRae, T. C. and M. E. Rice. 2007. Distributional and biological observations on North American Cerambycidae (Coleoptera). The Coleopterists Bulletin 61(2): 227–263.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Spring Unfolding

For many people, spring is their favorite time of year—the long, cold winter having given way to warmth, sunshine, and flowers. I love spring as well but find myself frustrated sometimes by its Jekyll and Hyde nature. This spring was particularly frustrating—the cold and rain seemed at times interminable, delaying the onset of the spring flora several weeks past normal. Once the sun finally did appear, the entire forest exploded in a cacophony of simultaneous leaf and bloom. Plant phenologies were so compressed that there was almost no time to appreciate the season before it was over. Nevertheless, as I waited patiently for those warmer days, I was still able to find beauty in the pre-bloom forest among its nascent leaves—their development put on hold for the time being but taking on an almost floral quality in the absence of the true flowers that they preceded. As a student of wood-boring beetles, I’ve had to become also a capable botanist, at least with regards to the woody flora, and pride myself on being able to identify trees not just by their mature leaves, but also their wood, bark, growth habit, and natural community—characters that are always available when leaves may not be (as is often the case with dead trees). Nascent leaves, on the other hand, are like flowers—ephemeral and often colorful. One must make an effort to see them, but it is effort well spent.

The photos below were taken on a cold, overcast day in late April at Holly Ridge Conservation Area in extreme southeastern Missouri. How many of them can you identify to species? This is an open challenge (i.e., no moderation of comments), and the first person to correctly identify all six will be declared the winner (remember, spelling counts!).


#1

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#2

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#3

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#4

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#5

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#6

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Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Field photographs of insects can be deceiving

My previous post featured several photos of Cicindela formosa generosa (Eastern Big Sand Tiger Beetle). This gorgeous beetle is said to occur in open, dry sand habitats throughout the Great Plains and more sporadically across the north-central and northeastern U.S. Like most other existing photos of this species, they show adults on barren sand with not so much as a sprig of vegetation to be seen. As a result, one might presume that adult beetles prefer the most open and barren areas of the habitats in which they occur.

"You don't see me, but I see  you!"

“You don’t see me, but I see you!”

Consider the above photo—taken the same day as those in the previous post but annoyingly cluttered with vegetation that partially obstructs the view of the beetle. This was actually the first photograph that I took that day, and while the foliage may be considered an aesthetic distraction, it nevertheless provides valuable information about the natural history of the beetle. My impression from the past few years of observation is that adult beetles actually spend more time foraging in the sparsely vegetated areas surrounding these more open areas. I presume they are more likely to encounter prey in areas where some vegetation exists, and also the vegetation provides opportunities for shade, which the adults actively seek out during the hottest parts of the day. Most collectors and photographers do not notice beetles foraging amongst the vegetation, but instead see them only after their approach has caused the beetle to flee out into the more open areas—where they are then collected/photographed.

© Ted C. MacRae 2013

Big, Bold and Beautiful—Redux

Cicindela formosa generosa | Scott Co., Missouri

Cicindela formosa generosa (Eastern Big Sand Tiger Beetle) | Scott Co., Missouri

Strange as it may seem to residents of the western U.S. or coastal areas in the east, one of my favorite sights in Missouri is dry sand! It’s a true rarity in our limestone/dolomite dominated state, a result of nearly continuously exposed land for the past several hundred million years. Only along the state’s bigger rivers, where relatively recent alluvial events have yet to be completely eroded by the passage of time, can significant sand deposits be found. It is in these habitats that one of my favorite of Missouri’s tiger beetles, Cicindela formosa generosa (Eastern Big Sand Tiger Beetle), can be found. In much of the state, tiny slivers of sand dry enough to support populations of these beetles occur sporadically along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and their larger tributaries. More extensive deposits, however, are found in several wide, low ridges of sand in the southeastern lowlands of the state—relatively recent alluvial deposits from the last glacial maximum. Sadly, in a region originally blanketed by tupelo/gum/cypress swamp, such relatively dry areas were the first to fall to the plow, and subsequent drainage of the surrounding swamps further promoted a near complete  conversion of the entire region to agriculture.

She's got legs up to her neck!

She’s got legs up to her neck!

Still, tiny remnants of original habitat remain—generally parcels of land that were either too dry and sandy or persistently undrainable. Such parcels now form the basis of Missouri’s system of preserves in southeast Missouri. As tiny as they are and representing only a few percent of their original extent, these parcels now serve a critical role in preserving some of Missouri’s most endangered natural communities. Among these is Sand Prairie Conservation Area in Scott Co., featured several times now on this blog (). The sand here is extraordinarily dry, due not only to its depth but also the low organic content—factors that made the land unfarmable and, ultimately, allowed it to escape the conversion that befell the surrounding areas and eventually become a preserve. I have visited Sand Prairie many times in recent years, and although I now know its plants and animals well, there are some that I never tire of seeing—plants like clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis), one of my favorite of Missouri’s milkweeds, and animals like C. formosa generosa!

Bold white markings and a chunky body make this one of Missouri's most distinctive tiger beetles.

Bold white markings and a chunky body make this one of Missouri’s most distinctive tiger beetles.

Last weekend I visited Sand Prairie once again, and I was happy to see C. formosa generosa as plentiful as I have ever seen it. I have photographed this species on several occasions, most recently two years ago at a site very near my house. Those last photographs are probably as good as I can ever expect (and in fact one of them even made this year’s ESA calendar), so barring some unusual color form or interesting natural history observation I have little reason to continue taking photographs of it. Nevertheless, I’m trying out a new diffuser, which was all the excuse I needed to try my hand again with this big, beautiful species. I was once again reminded of why of I love this tiger beetle so much—their bulk, their bulging eyes, their long, looping escape flights that end with a comical bounce and tumble, only to end up on their feet and facing their pursuer. These beetles are loaded with personality and behavioral charisma. It was an unseasonably warm and humid day, so my opportunities to photograph them were limited. I hope these few that I present here impart some of that personality.

Individuals from Missouri often show a hint of the red coloration that characterizes populations further west.

Missouri individuals often show a hint of the red coloration that characterizes populations further west.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Oversized, double-concave diffuser for MT-24EX twin flash

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Megaloxantha bicolor palawanica, photographed with oversized, double-concave diffuser

This jewel beetle is, of course, Megaloxantha bicolor palawanica me beetle on several occasions while testing out different diffuser designs for my Canon MT-24EX twin flash unit. In the most recent one, I had tried combining SoftBoxes with my oversized concave diffuser and was pleased enough with the result that I thought I might try it in the field. Well, let’s just say the extensions for the flash heads and SoftBoxes attached to them was far too clumsy for field use, and I abandoned the idea after just a couple of hours. Back to the drawing board.

Despite the problems with using the SoftBoxes in the field, I still wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of double diffusion, and I had also learned that extending my oversized diffuser out over the subject (leaving it “open”) produced better lighting than curling it back (as I had been doing). Curling the diffuser back only served to turn it into a convex diffuser, which results in more specular highlighting because the center of the diffuser is closer to the subject than the edges. A concave diffuser provides more even lighting because all parts of the diffuser are roughly the same distance from the subject. Just about that time, I saw a DIY diffuser design by Piotr Nascrecki that, in principle, resembled Alex Wild‘s tent diffuser. It was, however, much larger—like mine, and thus amenable for use with a 100mm macro lens (the macro lens I use most commonly). This resemblance to Alex’s diffuser did make me notice one missing feature—double diffusion layers. That’s when I thought, why not do the same with an oversized diffuser rather than fussing with separate diffusers attached to the flash heads? I had some Bogen Imaging filter sheets on hand (#129 Heavy Frost), so I picked up some 1-mm steel wire at the hardware store, found a Bic pen in the drawer that I could cut in half, and built the diffuser as shown in Piotr’s post. I then secured a second filter sheet above the first sheet by taping the two together along their sides, being sure to ‘bow’ the upper sheet above the bottom sheet to achieve the double diffusion effect. Here is the result (please excuse the iPhone shots):

Oversized double diffuser for Canon MT-24EX twin flash.

Canon 50D with MT-24EX twin flash and oversized, double-concave diffuser.

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Better view of the double diffusion layers and Piotr’s “Bic pen” attachment system.

I have big hopes that this will finally be the diffuser I’ve been looking for. For as quick a test shot as the jewel beetle photo above was, the lighting is great and the colors are vibrant—both achieved with typical post-processing. My only complaint is the slightly greater “hot spot” intensity in the lower parts of the highlights in the eyes. This is due to the flash heads sitting near the base of the diffuser, and (as Piotr recommends) a second set of Kaiser shoes will allow me to move the flash heads not only more towards the center of the diffuser but also further above it to help spread out the light throw and even out the highlights. I’ll need to play around positioning the flashes to figure out the best positions depending on the size and distance of the subject—sitting up higher as they are puts them more on “top” than in “front” of the subject, so they will need to be directed downward more than I am used to doing. Even more important, however, is field usability, and I really think this diffuser will prove to be convenient and easy to use in the field—no more gawky arms attached to the camera, the diffuser attaching quickly and easily and, just as importantly, coming off easily and storing flat in the backpack, and large enough to do the job while not so oversized that it gets in the way. Piotr says this diffuser also works well with the 65mm macro lens, so I will certainly be testing that out as well.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

A Tale of Two Blogs

In April 2012, I wrote a post called “Is blogging dead?” – Another view in response to Alex‘s previous day’s post (Is Blogging Dead?). While Alex acknowledged that blogging provided an early social network structure now better served by Facebook and Google+, he also maintained that there still remained a dedicated contingent for whom blogging best served their needs. As a committed blogger myself, I really wanted to share Alex’s optimism—but I just couldn’t. Something told me that blogging was at a crossroads, and the future wasn’t rosy. Why did I feel this way? My site stats didn’t suggest trouble ahead—from February 2009 (shortly after I moved Beetles in the Bush to WordPress) until April 2012, site visits—and presumably readership—had increased steadily (see chart below based on weekly stats, with the periodic surges due to posts I wrote that got picked up by Freshly Pressed). Not like one of the big blogs, of course, but still not bad for a natural history blog aimed at a specialty audience. Rather, it was the decline of comments and coincident increase in the use of Twitter, Facebook, G+, etc. as the platforms of choice for social interaction among those for whom blogs previously fulfilled that need. To me it seemed inevitable—why invest in clicking through to individual blogs and reading a 500- to 1,500-word post when one could read several hundred 140-character headlines, quipping an equally short reply to as many of them as desired, all on one site. Maximum interaction, maximum information (depending on your definition of “information”), minimum fuss.

Site stats - February 2009 to April 2012.

Site stats – February 2009 to April 2012.

Ironically, almost immediately after I wrote that post the decline that I predicted began with my own blog. The chart below shows BitB site stats (again, on a weekly basis), picking up where the above chart left off until the end of March 2013. As precipitously as site visits rose during the previous three years, they declined during the following one year. There are those who contend that “People who say blogging is dead either already have a blog that died, or they have no blog at all.” That may be true now, at least based on site stats and the now rather low frequency of comments, but it most certainly was not the case when I first voiced this opinion last year. In fact, that a Google search of “Is blogging dead” can turn up nearly 100,000 search results (with quotation marks!) shows that a whole lot of people are still asking the question.

Site stats – April 2012 to March 2013.

This is not to say that blogs cannot still be successful. I suggest that the platform has matured, undergone consolidation and weeded out the weakest contributors. By weak, I don’t mean poor quality of content, but rather lack of ability or resources to frequently and consistently provide that content and target it to a relatively large audience. Early adopters who carved out a niche and built a strong brand had the best chance of surviving this maturation, and among the specialty blogs dealing with natural history and entomology it seems those who act as clearing houses for information from across the discipline, serve as an interface for commercial/educational ventures, or focus on the “bizarre” or contentious are most likely to attract and retain followers. Of course, an alternate hypothesis is that my writing suddenly got boring and my photos suck—take your pick.

As for what this means for Beetles in the Bush, I’m not really sure yet. During the past month (and for the first time since I started writing this blog in earnest), I’ve backed off on what until then had been a very consistent 2–3 posts per week schedule. Quite clearly, this will not help if my goal is to find some way to reverse the downward trend, as frequency of posts ranks almost as high as quality of content in keeping a blog successful. I used to tell myself that I would write regardless of who was reading, because it was something I needed to do (and enjoyed doing) for myself, and I truly believe that was the case when I said it. But perhaps I’ve now gotten what I needed out of the blog—my writing skills are far superior to when I started; I can sit down and pound out not only a blog post, but research reports, status updates, manuscripts, etc. in record time. I used to agonize over every word; now it seems my fingers can hardly keep up with the words as they pour out of my mind. If one of my goals when I started blogging was to make myself a better writer (and it was), then in that regard I have succeeded. I’m also now a vastly more knowledgeable entomologist, having taken the time to learn a lot more not just about beetles, but insects across many taxa, the habitats in which they live, the ecological communities they are a part of, and the landscapes that harbour them. For the first time, I consider myself not just an entomologist, but a natural historian in the truest sense of the word. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine not writing for BitB, but I think now the impulse to write a post will be based much more on inspiration and less so on the calendar. I truly hope that the reduced posting frequency doesn’t further accelerate the decline, but if it does then that is the only possible outcome.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013